It is a well-known fact that aperture is one of the three variables used to control the camera’s exposure. But, it is also one of the most useful variables for creative nature photography. Beginner nature photographers are so focused on using aperture for controlling depth of field and exposure that they often ignore the creative aspect of the using aperture.
And who can blame them? It is not easy to use aperture as a creative variable. Using aperture as a creative variable requires out-of-box thinking and bit of experimentation. Here are some tips for using aperture to capture creative nature photos.
#1: Play with Depth of Field
One of the first things you learn is that aperture can be used to control depth of field. And this property of aperture is very useful to simplify your photos. To use this effect for nature photographs, you must select your focus carefully.
In the first image above, I used an aperture of F13 to get the trillium flower sharply in focus. However, by using this aperture, I could also include the cluttered background in the image even though the focus was carefully set on the trillium flower. Now compare this with the second image above where I used an aperture of F4 to capture the same flower. Here the background clutter is greatly reduce, but so is the depth of field. For this image I carefully selected my focus to be on the stamen of the flower even it this meant that only part of the flower is in focus.
You can also combine selective focus with narrow DOF field at wide apertures to isolate a single element from its environment.
Here is a photo that I took in Kootenay National Par in Canada at the time fireweed plants were in full bloom in the forest. I wanted to isolate a single fireweed flower from the rest. I used an aperture of F4 and focused on the fireweed flower growing in the foreground. This allowed me to blur the background and isolate a single flower from others growing in the area.
#2: Create Artistic Effects
In the previous example, my intent was clearly to simplify the image by using shallow DOF created by a wide aperture. However, you can use a shallow DOF to create a sense of place or a dreamy effect for nature photography.
In the above image from Hellissandur, Iceland, I used a shallow aperture of F2.8 to soften both the background and the foreground. I set my focus on the church at the top of the hill, while I let both the foreground and background blur by using an aperture of F2.8. The final result was an artistic and moody nature photo of a spectacular location.
#3: Creative Use of Bokeh
Bokeh is the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas in your nature photos. Different lenses create different types of bokeh. By choosing the right lens and aperture you can create some artistic nature photos. Take a look at the first image below of the flower captured in the botanical gardens in Costa Rica. The over-exposed highlight in background in this photo were created by flowing water captured at F8. This image looks like a snapshot of the flower.
Now compare this with the second image of the same flower captured using aperture of F2.8. This aperture completely changed the look and feel of the background. Using this aperture, Varina was able to change the over-exposed streaks of highlights to soft round Bokeh. Additionally, she was using a Lensbaby’s Velvet lenses that produced a soft glow around her subject giving it an artistic look.
It is not easy to predict how the bokeh will look ahead of time. So, to effectively use our bokeh for creative nature photography, we always end up previewing our shots on back of the camera and then adjusting our photography composition and camera settings to get the exact look we are looking for.
The above examples are all using narrow apertures for creative photography. However, your choice of aperture to be creative in any given situation varies tremendously. It is also difficult to predict which aperture will work best in any given scenarios. For this reason, rely on experimentation to get creative with aperture.
In this example from Fiji, I used an aperture F7.1 and a close focusing distance to create a sense of place. My subject was the white shell in the foreground. I got down low to the ground and close to the shell. Using an aperture of F7.1 allowed me to keep the shells sharply in focus and the background blurred. By controlling the distance between my camera and the shell, I created just the right amount of blur to give this photo a sense of place.
You can also use aperture to add sunstar to your photo. In this image from Morocco, Varina used an aperture of F22 to add a sun star to this gorgeous location. Creating a sunstar with an aperture requires a bit of experimentation with different aperture values.
Using aperture as a creative variable does not mean that you don’t have to think about how aperture interacts with focus and exposure. It means that you must develop a workflow that allows you to harness the power of aperture for creative nature photography and control the exposure and focus at the same time. It also allows you to control the exposure of the scene you are trying to capture. Our Creative Photography with Aperture tutorial focuses on using your aperture settings to create a portfolio of imaginative and expressive nature photography. You’ll have access to step-by-step case studies that allow you to watch as we use our aperture to create real world nature photos in field. We teach the concepts in straight-forward, non-technical terms.
Do you use aperture as a creative variable for nature photography? If so feel free to share your own tips and techniques in the comments below.